Published: 26-09-2011, 09:21

Coal industry

Definition: Rapidly expanding industry that was largely dependent on immigrant labor through its formative period during the nineteenth century Industrial Revolution

Significance: The American coal industry relied heavily on immigrant labor during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Immigrant miners exerted a powerful and pervasive influence upon life in coal mining towns and figured prominently in early organized labor movements.

Used as a source of fuel and warmth since ancient times, coal was first mined in the United States in mid-eighteenth century Virginia and was mined on a large scale in the Appalachian Mountains of Virginia and Pennsylvania starting in the midnineteenth century. The discovery of large coal deposits in the central Appalachian region of Kentucky, Virginia, and West Virginia during the Civil War and later in the midwestern states and western territories resulted in dramatic expansion of the coal industry and a corresponding increase in the demand for mine labor. In order to fulfill this demand, the coal industry attracted large numbers of immigrant laborers from various countries during its formative period.

Immigrant Miners

Immigrants to the United States came to the coal mines through a variety of means. Some were attracted by labor agents stationed in major ports of entry who often resorted to elaborate and deceptive descriptions of living and working conditions in the mines. Others followed friends and relatives to coal towns and camps. Early immigrant miners were primarily natives of coal mining regions of Great Britain and Ireland. Wales, a region containing numerous coal mines, was heavily represented, and a continuous influx of Irish labor during the nineteenth century ensured the presence of large numbers of Irish miners in most coalproducing regions.

The ethnic composition of immigrant coal miners changed dramatically toward the end of the nineteenth century as large numbers of eastern and southern European immigrants flooded into coal mining towns and camps. As both demand for mine labor and demands of miners for better pay and working conditions increased, coal mine operators began actively recruiting immigrants from these regions to increase their labor pools and to foster linguistic, religious, and cultural divisions intended to complicate the efforts of miners to organize. These divisions, often exacerbated by the physical separation of ethnic groups within coal mining towns and camps, occasionally resulted in violent clashes.

“Breaker boys” in a Kingston, Pennsylvania, anthracite coal mine in 1900. Predominantly immigrants, these boys often worked fourteen- to sixteen-hour days separating slate from the coal after it was taken out of the mine shafts. (Library of Congress)

Interaction and Conflict

Although segregation of African American, native-born, and immigrant miners was common in coal towns and camps, attitudes toward the social adjustment of eastern and southern immigrants varied. Many coal mine operators preferred that immigrants continue to retain their native languages and customs to foster dependence upon management and segregation from other miners, while others encouraged immigrant miners and their families to learn English and adopt “American” values and customs. Attitudes toward assimilation also varied among immigrant miners; many adamantly preserved their native culture, while others sought rapid assimilation, sometimes Anglicizing their surnames and changing religious affiliations.

Interethnic tension among immigrant miners often complicated life in coal mining camps and towns. Many of these tensions were religious in nature; others, such as conflicts between British miners and later arrivals from Poland, Czechoslovakia, Greece, and other eastern and southern European nations, revolved around ethnicity. Still others, such as the backlash against German immigrants during World War I, were precipitated by popular perceptions of geopolitical events and trends.

Activism and Reaction

The rise of organized labor in the United States during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries weakened many of these ethnic and cultural barriers by drawing large numbers of immigrant miners into their ranks, but also strengthened existing stereotypes of foreigners as radicals and revolutionaries. Although initially dominated by British miners, the immigrant ranks of coal mining unions had begun accepting, and later actively recruiting, members fromother regions of Europe. Immigrants constituted a substantial number of new recruits to the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) during the 1890’s, during which membership in the union increased nearly tenfold.

Traditions of political radicalism already existed in many immigrant mining communities, some of which contained residents who had participated in socialist or anarchist movements in their countries of origin. The real or perceived presence of political radicals within the ranks of immigrant miners provoked harsh reactions from many labor opponents, who exploited fears of foreign influence to provoke clashes between unions and antilabor groups that often erupted into violence.

The entry of the United States into World War I in 1917, the rise of communism in the Soviet Union following the end of the war, and ongoing reports of radical political activity attributed to immigrants produced a backlash against southern and eastern European immigration, resulting in escalated discrimination against these immigrants and legal restrictions upon further immigration, including the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918, the Immigration Acts of 1921 and 1924, and the Alien Immigration Act of 1930. The Immigration Acts in particular resulted in a dramatic decrease in southern and eastern European immigration.

A Lasting Impact

Immigrants exerted a significant and lasting impact upon the coal mining industry in all coalproducing regions of the United States. Before the arrival of immigrants, many communities in these regions were racially, ethnically, and religiously homogeneous, yet by the mid-twentieth century, persons of a variety of geographical and cultural backgrounds had resided in these areas for generations, their customs and folkways a permanent although sometimes obscure part of the local culture. Meanwhile, the influx of immigrants to mines continued on a much smaller scale as coal mines in western states employed increasing numbers of Hispanic immigrants during the late twentieth century.

Michael H. Burchett

Further Reading

  • Bartoletti, Susan Campbell. Growing Up in Coal Country. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1996. Social history of Pennsylvania coal camps during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Discusses the role of immigrants in the social structure of coal camps and in early labor movements. 
  • Corbin, David. Life, Work, and Rebellion in the Coal Fields: The Southern West Virginia Miners, 1880- 1920. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1989. Contains detailed discussion of immigrant labor recruitment to the coal mines of West Virginia and the participation of immigrant miners in labor movements. 
  • Eller, Ronald. Miners, Millhands, and Mountaineers: Industrialization of the Appalachian South, 1880- 1930. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1982. Discusses recruiting of immigrant labor and the social structure of coal mining towns and camps. 
  • Shiflett, Crandall. Coal Towns: Life, Work, and Culture in Company Towns of Southern Appalachia, 1880-1960. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1995. General history of coal camps, including discussion of interactions between immigrant and nonimmigrant coal miners. 
  • United States Immigration Commission. Immigrants in Industry: Bituminous Coal Mining V1 (1911). Whitefish, Mont.: Kessinger, 2008. Reprint of federal study provides primary source information on immigrants in coal mining. 

See also: Economic opportunities; European immigrants; Iowa; Iron and steel industry; Kentucky; Labor unions; Mexican immigrants; Molly Maguires; Oklahoma; Pennsylvania; Virginia; West Virginia; World War I.